How to Paint Birds

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Birds in Watercolor
Birds in Watercolor (Image: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Birds are a favorite for most beginning as well as accomplished artists. While you have to get an exact likeness in painting people, you have more freedom when painting a bird. Also, because you usually paint a side view of a bird rather than a full face it's easier as you don't have to match the eyes and other parts of the face and body. The transparency of watercolor gives an added beauty.

Things You'll Need

  • Reference photo
  • Mechanical pencil and eraser
  • Watercolor paints and brushes
  • Plastic palette
  • Paper towels and rags
  • Watercolor paper
  • 2 containers of water

Select brushes and watercolors. Studying your reference photograph, decide which colors and brushes you'll need. Although you may not stay with the brush sizes and colors, it's good to settle on which ones will do the most work. Squeeze out small amounts of paints on your palette, separating warm and cool colors.

Lightly sketch in the outline for your bird(s), including any background items such as branches and leaves. Determine the direction of lighting before painting, noting sunlit spots and shading.

Using a medium-sized brush lay in a light wash of the lightest colors on the bird's body, being careful to leave white areas. After the first wash has almost dried, lay in the next darkest values. Always paint from light to dark.

Begin to define feathers and other body features with darker values. Note any distinctive spots on the body and add, besides continuing to mold feathers. Add any shadows.

Paint beak, face and eyes. Using a small round brush, carefully paint the beak, leaving areas for highlights. With a small liner brush divide the upper and lower beak. Define facial features with a small round brush. Lightly paint the eye in black, leaving a catch light. Then darken it.

Detail wings and tail. Paint the feathers, from the top of the wing to the bottom, using thin lines curving with the curvature of the wing. Add feet and claws, using a small liner brush, being careful to paint them as accurate as possible.

Add background, laying in washes for branches and leaves. If your bird has warm colors, a cool background of blues will add more impact.

Finally, go over the background washes with darker values. Add details to bark and leaves, using a drier brush. Refine the painting, adding any finishing touches. Leave plenty of negative space so your painting won't look too "busy."

Tips & Warnings

  • Once you've chosen your paints, stick to them. By changing paints you make your painting look muddy. Frequently clean your brushes. Use one container of water for painting and the other for cleaning brushes. Change water when needed. The heavier and toothier your watercolor paper, the more durable it is. Study bird anatomy books.
  • Be careful painting wet on wet as overly wet paint can get out of control and ruin your painting.
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